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Global Warming and Resilience

March 7, 2007


As most people are aware, an international group of climate scientists released a report last month that (for most people) settled the issue of whether global warming is real. It is. The report also concluded that human activities have played a significant role in causing it. As I said, not everyone’s convinced. The American Enterprise Institute is offering money to anyone who can poke holes in the report, but their efforts are bucking the overwhelming evidence of what is happening around the world. Then there’s the University of Georgia economics professor, David Lee, who like many naysayers offer red herring arguments on the subject [“Cars improved the air … that’s no bull,” The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, 27 February 2007]. Lee writes:

“The motto of all environmentalists should be ‘Thank goodness for the internal combustion engine.’ The abuse heaped on the internal combustion engine by environmentalists was never justified. But a recent story on cow flatulence in the British newspaper, The Independent, makes the environmental benefits from gasoline-powered engines even more obvious. Based on a recent study by the Food and Agricultural Organization, The Independent reports that ‘livestock are responsible for 18 percent of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming, more than cars, planes and all other forms of transport put together.’ move from the power provided by animals to that provided by gasoline had greatly improved the environment. The emissions that came out of the tailpipes of horses were much more lethal pollutants that those now coming out of the tailpipes of cars. Horse emissions did more than make our town and cities stink; they spread fly-borne diseases and polluted water supplies that killed people at a far greater rate than the pollution from cars and trucks ever have. Photochemical smog is clearly a health risk, but not nearly the health risk of cholera, diphtheria and tetanus that have been largely eliminated with the help of gasoline powered transportation.”

To be fair, the good professor does go on to admit that even though internal combustion engines are better than flatulent draft animals they too should give way to more environmentally friendly technologies. Unlike some global warming critics, however, Lee doesn’t deny that human activity has helped create an environmental crisis.

Level-headed reporter David Ignatius writes about just how frightening climate change will be if we don’t act now to stop the problem from getting worse and what could happen if we don’t make our social systems and critical infrastructure more resilient to that change [“The Climate-Change Precipice,” Washington Post, 2 March 2007]. Ignatius writes:

“The scientific debate about whether there is a global warming problem is pretty much over. A leading international group of climate scientists reported last month that the evidence for global warming is ‘unequivocal’ and that the likelihood it is caused by humans is more than 90 percent. Skeptical researchers will continue to question the data, but this isn’t a “call both sides for comment” issue anymore. For mainstream science, it’s settled. The question now is what to do about global warming. This is a political problem more than a scientific one. The solutions (if we can agree on any) will require political will and imagination — and also pain.  … These issues come into focus in a startling new report by futurist Peter Schwartz. He turns the usual discussions upside down: Rather than starting with detailed estimates of climate change (how much temperatures will increase; how much sea levels will rise; what new diseases will be spawned), he looks instead at systems that already are vulnerable to such stresses. What Schwartz discovers with his stress-testing makes climate change even scarier: The world already is precarious; the networks that maintain political and social order already are fragile, especially in urban areas; the dividing line between civilized life and anarchy is frighteningly easy to breach.”

I’ll return to what Schwartz says, but I want to remind readers that he is basically an optimist. Schwartz believes that humankind can adapt to the changes it has wrought, but he needs to get our attention first. And he does a pretty good job of that.

“‘The steady escalation of climate pressure will stretch the resiliency of natural and human systems,’ writes Schwartz. ‘In short, climate change pushes systems everywhere toward their tipping point.’ Schwartz’s report, ‘Impacts of Climate Change,’ was prepared by his consulting group, Global Business Network, for a U.S. government intelligence agency he doesn’t identify. The text of the report is available at the online discussion forum PostGlobal (http://www.washingtonpost.com/postglobal). Here’s a brief trek through the ravaged landscape Schwartz describes. A first set of disasters waiting to happen involves stressed ecosystems. Human actions — deforestation, overfarming, rapid urbanization — have created special vulnerabilities to catastrophic natural events that are likely as the climate changes globally. In an interview, Schwartz cited the example of Haiti, which because of deforestation and loss of topsoil is ‘an ecosystem at the edge.’ A prolonged drought or a devastating hurricane could tip Haiti over that threshold — and produce a refugee crisis of tens of thousands of boat people fleeing a devastated country. Or take the problem of rising sea levels: Climate scientists are uncertain how fast the icecaps will melt and the seas will rise. But in Bangladesh, where millions of people live at or near sea level, even a small increase could produce a catastrophe. In a severe monsoon, 60 million to 100 million people could be forced to flee inundated areas, Schwartz warns, producing ‘the single greatest humanitarian crisis we have ever seen.’  Lack of water may be as big a problem as flooding. Schwartz notes that more than 700 million people now live in arid or semi-arid areas. Climate change could tip this balance, too, producing severe water shortages and even ‘water wars.’ Tens of millions of people may become water migrants. The world’s feeble political systems can’t cope with existing migration patterns, let alone this human tide. And finally, there is the problem of maintaining social order in a stressed world. You don’t have to go to Baghdad to see how quickly the social fabric can be shredded; just look at New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The stresses come in part from rapid urbanization. Schwartz notes that in 1900, one in 20 people lived in cities; today it’s about half, and the percentage is rising fast. Without strong and supple governments, this could become a world of vigilantes and militias, desperate to control scarce resources.”

Even strong supple governments are not going to be able to keep up. Not only will the skeptics slow them down, but governments are by nature slow. They are, for example, always racing (and losing) to keep policies in line with scientific and technological breakthroughs. Does that mean all is lost? Of course not. The same creative people who keep governments scurrying to make new policy will be those who help us become more resilient to the changes that lie ahead. Government will play a role, but its greatest contribution should be strong leadership that permits a combined public/private effort that easily collaborates across borders. Ignatius concludes:

“The big problems in life aren’t the ones that hit you by surprise but the ones you can see coming. That’s surely the case with climate change: We can measure it, we can imagine its catastrophic effects. But can we do anything to stop it? If we let ourselves visualize how bad it could get, as Schwartz does in this report, will we make changes that might reduce the disaster? That’s the real stress test: It’s coming at us. What are we doing about it?”

One of the reasons I worked with the folks in Oak Ridge to establish the Institute for Advanced Technologies in Global Resilience is because I agree with Ignatius that you can see most problems coming. That means you can study them, debate them, collaborate about solutions to them, and experiment with ideas that emerge from such activities. I bring a certain set of skills with me, but to address the challenges listed by Schwartz, it is going to take a large and eclectic group of people to get involved. Now is the time.

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